Just about a week ago, I returned to Central Florida to begin the fourth semester of my journey here at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando. Having been home in Kingsburg for about a month and a half, my return to school was marked by two strong emotions: an excitement to return to my studies and a sadness to yet again be leaving everyone behind. With the dawn of a new year, I was and have been able to reflect upon my life since I began seminary back in the summer of 2014. Over the span of it, one consistent truth has continued to ring true for me–California is home.
In the Old Testament, we often read about the Israelites who, when exiled to distant and far off lands, yearned with all they had to return home to the Promised Land. So much of who they were was bound up in where they were from that, for them, there was almost this poetic, penetrating desire to return to their homeland–in other words, they could feel it in their bones.
Before moving to Florida, I never knew what it was like to feel this way about a place, but I think I’m finally starting to get it. This isn’t in any way to say that I feel as though Orlando has been an exile for me; it most certainly hasn’t. I am so deeply grateful that I get to be at what I consider one of the world’s finest seminaries (if not the best, seriously), studying some of the most amazing truths, making and growing relationships with some of the godliest people, and being trained by some of the most learned scholars in the Christian world. This was always the whole point of my decision to move 3,000 miles away, and I don’t regret a single second of it. I have been and am being forever changed by God during my time here.
But more and more, I am growing in my certainty that Central California is where I belong. At least for the foreseeable future.
So it is with this all in mind that I now proceed to the rest of this update. As I’ve done in the past, I will go about this thematically and explain some of the things have that been swirling around in my mind regarding each.
After months of thought and prayer and careful consideration, I just recently switched from the Master of Divinity degree (the largest seminary degree, typically taken by those sensing a call to full-time pastoral ministry; it includes both deep theological/biblical content and practical skills, e.g., counseling, preaching, communication, etc.) to the Master of Arts in Biblical Studies degree (a smaller seminary degree, typically taken by those desiring a proper theological/biblical knowledge and perhaps wanting to enter into missions work, academia, or various capacities of pastoral ministry). The reason for this change was not any one factor, but rather an amalgamation of many, with the main ones being a desire to return home sooner rather than later, the ability to finish online, financial cost, the keeping open of the door to further education (such as a Ph.D), and the glaring reality that in the contexts I’m starting to see myself in vocationally the MABS will probably be all that I need, rendering a full M.Div degree, for all intents and purposes, unnecessary. So, because the MABS is significantly shorter (77 credit hours as opposed to 106), my projected date of graduation is a lot closer to the horizon than it had been before. Depending on how I go about it, I will finish up either this coming Fall or next Spring. Because of this change, this semester is shaping up to be markedly more relaxed than any I’ve had before (at least academically). So my schedule this semester is quite simple:
1. Acts & Pauline Epistles (4 credit hours) with Prof. Greg Lanier
This is a class I’ve been excited to take since before I came to seminary, because my personal study of the book of Romans years ago was a bit of a watershed moment in my walk with Christ. This course is being taught by a brand new professor, Mr. Greg Lanier, who is currently finishing up his Ph.D at the University of Cambridge in England (once he’s done he will officially be “Dr. Lanier,” lol). Some people warned me to watch out for new professors and to take them after they’ve gotten accustomed to professorial ministry, but after our first few lecture, I think this “greenness” is actually going to be a benefit to us. Also, the fact that he is still a student allows for him to have a much more immediate understanding of what it’s like to be in our shoes. And it also means he’s young, which will make for certain connections that aren’t always possible with other professors. All in all, I’m really looking forward to it.
2. History of Philosophy and Christian Thought (3 credit hours) with Dr. John M. Frame
For whatever reason, I’d been putting this class off for fear of entering into a world in which I didn’t quite have any foundation (philosophy) or personal stake in. But, it turns out, I just didn’t know what this class was about. Now that I’m actually enrolled, I realize that this might be one of the most crucial classes to my mental formation of historical theology. Whereas we learn the overarching story of Church history in our Christian History courses, this class exists to highlight and study the overarching content of Church history. The two, of course, are interrelated and connected, but this will be fundamental to my growing interest in the history of Christ’s Church, as we will analyze the ever-important historical interplay between philosophy and the Christian faith. So, for example, one of the things we’re currently reading about is the relationship between ancient Greek philosophical categories and early Christian doctrine on Christ and the Trinity. The aim of the class is to follow both philosophy and theology through the centuries, all the way up to the present day.
3. Isaiah – Malachi (3 credit hours) with Dr. Nicholas Reid
This is the third of four segments of my Old Testament survey courses (the last remaining one, which I will take in the Fall, is “Poets”), where we will simply be covering the story and theology of all the books from Isaiah to Malachi. I will be taking it as an intensive course over Spring Break, from March 21-24, but it’s more of a hybrid than anything, so I’ll have online assignments in addition to the four days of class. The professor will be Dr. Nicholas Reid, the Old Testament professor over at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL (the bible college of R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries). That’s about all I know about the course, so beyond that I’m all out of info.
My time home this past month allowed for some much needed reflection and decompression from the theological confusion that has been raging in my brain. Because much of this is complex (hence the confusion), I will try to explain it all in the plainest terms possible, so as to not bring you into it.
As some of you may know, over the past year of study, my ecclesiological or denominational identity has undergone somewhat of a change. Upon entering RTS back in 2014, I had a few theological positions down straight: I knew I was a Christian, I knew I was a Protestant, I knew I was an evangelical (though not of the Donald Trump stripe), and I knew I was a Calvinist in my understanding of salvation (think TULIP). For the most part, none of this has changed, but my horizons have certainly expanded. I am now more certainly Christian, more graciously Protestant, more cautiously evangelical, and more broadly Calvinistic. One of the ever-lingering questions in my brain is the nature of the relationship between Holy Scripture and Churchly Tradition (by Churchly Tradition I mean both historical theology and practice). As a Protestant, I still adhere to the principle of Sola Scriptura, though now with a much more open and appreciative stance toward the necessity of tradition (which, I would argue, is the only way to be true to the principle in the first place). Historically speaking, it has been quite easy for the Protestant movement to subvert tradition in the name of Scripture, but what this has done (and often does do) is lead to further division and schism. Now, I’m not saying that all tradition is good tradition, but I’m a lot more wary than I once was of people who take an avowedly antagonistic approach toward historic Christian thought and practice. In my studies, I have interfaced substantially both with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, studying their arguments against Protestant theology and practice. Sometimes I find myself in wholehearted agreement, other times I just become more aware of my unchanging (and seemingly unchangeable) Protestant convictions. But one thing it most certainly has done was to make me begin desiring and searching for a more historically and liturgically-oriented approach to the Faith. If one thing is certain, it’s that no church has it all (if you agree with this, congratulations!–you’re a Protestant, if you don’t, you are likely Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, haha). So this past year I found respite, of all places, in The Episcopal Church. I’m still surprised at this, given its current state as one of the most liberal denominations in the world (note: worldwide Anglicanism, of which The Episcopal Church is merely the official American branch, is another story; just this past January the Archbishops of the Communion voted to restrict The Episcopal Church from decisions on polity and doctrine for three years, which is until their next General Convention, where they can then change their recently formalized stance in favor of gay marriage), but my diocese in Central Florida is one of the few left that maintains a strong stance in favor of traditional Christian marriage. In fact, three of my priests have ties to my school, two of which have positions as adjunct professors. This says a lot about my church if you know anything about my school (hint: RTS is a seminary with close ties to the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church–TL;DR: we are, for lack of a better word, conservative).
That said, I’ve begun to consider ordination in the Anglican Church. I won’t say too much about that here, save for the fact that I’m not dead set on it by any means. It’s just an option that has presented itself to me at this point, and one which I’m happy to consider. But being that I want to be back in Central California sooner rather than later, getting ordained in Central Florida would put the brakes on that dream. Additionally, The Episcopal Church anywhere on the West Coast is entrenched in liberal theology, of which I cannot in good conscience have any part. Thus, I’d have to get my ordination transferred to the Anglican Church in North America, a smaller (but quickly growing), conservative body of Anglicans were I to move home. And I’m not sure about the morality of getting ordained in one place to just move to another. Basically, there’s a ton to think about. At the end of the day, despite some of the significant changes in my theological understanding, I could still (ironically) see myself serving in a nondenominational setting. That kind of makes everything I’ve said above irrelevant, I know, but so be it. Something my pastor back home has constantly told me still rings in my ear: “Zac, lost people don’t care.” This is not to say that the deep theological and liturgical and ecclesiological convictions I’ve developed as of late are irrelevant, but rather that they are, for the most part, secondary. So despite my so-called “High-Church” affinities, I think I’d be more than happy to serve in an exceedingly “Low-Church” setting.
So, for the most part, a lot of my future remains a looming question mark. But whose doesn’t?
Obviously, the longer I’m here the more at home I feel in the community life of my school and church. It’s really cool to be a part of the student body at my school, especially. So many of the friendships I’ve made there are and will be invaluable in the days to come. Seminary is such a strange chapter of life, so processing through it with the others going through it with you is a special process. About a week ago, my friend Mark invited a few of us to have a traditional Korean dinner at his apartment with his wife Naomi and newborn son Joshua (Mark is Korean-American and Naomi is Korean). After dinner, the four of us guys there sat and chatted in Mark’s living till midnight about our experiences in school (all of us are transplants from very far away places) and life in general. It was a great time to share from the heart with others who understand the mess in your head and getting to hear what’s going on in theirs. Likewise, a few nights ago I went out to a local cocktail bar with other friends from school, who had some old friends in town, one of whom was here to check out RTS. As we sat around a fire pit and shared our experiences about RTS in an effort to convince him that RTS is the best school (again, it is), I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the many different things we brought up about why RTS is so great. It just reinforced my gladness in being here. One of the things this guy said was that he’d heard that RTS Orlando was in a rebuilding stage. I’d never really considered this reality, but I had to concede it was somewhat true. However, the lineup that’s recently been created here has been insane: Scott Swain and R. Michael Allen are some of the best Christian (not just Reformed) scholars on earth today and the careers ahead of them are going to be marked by profound aid to Christ’s Church. I am totally convinced of this. Add these men to the likes of John Frame, Jim Coffield, C. E. Hill, Mark Futato, Michael Glodo and even some of our adjuncts–Reggie M. Kidd, Ryan Reeves, and Justin Holcomb–and what you have is an unbelievably well-trained, godly, and discerning staff. That feeling you get when you meet your favorite author or celebrity is basically how I feel on an every day basis.
But I digress. My friends here are great. Next month my roommate Josh gets married and I have the honor of being one of his groomsmen. It is a testament of God’s grace to me that having only lived here for a total of a year and 6 months, I’m already going to be one of those guys who gets to watch his friend’s wedding from the stage. Pretty cool if I do say so myself.
I think I’ve forgotten this facet in previous updates. Suffice it to say, the two part time jobs I have right now are going quite well. There’s really not a whole lot to say other than that they’re both good jobs for me. As a barista at the coffee/bike shop (Velo Creek Bike & Brew), I basically just serve drinks, clean up, and shoot the breeze with my friend Sean, the shop mechanic. As for my other set-up job for Northland Church, it’s great. It’s just a lot of alone time, so it’s great for listening to a ton of podcasts. So I can’t complain. I’m glad to have them both!
I think that about covers it for now. As always, if you ever want to talk please don’t hesitate to text, Snap, email, or call! I’m happy to chat, or to talk about theological/biblical questions any of you may have (though I certainly can’t promise to know the answers, lol). If you’re a friend/family member from back home, just know I miss you and love you. I know there is a lot of hard stuff going on right now for many of you (I constantly read the KCC prayer emails), so just know that I’m praying about it all. If you’re a Florida friend and you’re reading this, I’m honored. Let’s grab coffee sometime. Haha!
Grace and peace,
**The featured image is my home church, Cathedral Church of St. Luke, located in downtown Orlando. It’s pretty freaking sweet.