29 December 2011

Teaching the Word in a closed country: interview with Prof. Jim Hamilton

by Dan Phillips

Even we nobodies can have well-known friends, often (these days) of the "cyber-" variety. One of my jewels of such a friend is Professor Jim Hamilton of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim maintains a blog that's one of my daily stops, and is author of and contributor to a number of books. His recent magnificent work of Biblical Theology, God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment, should be on everyone's "best of 2011" list. Jim also did me the great kindness of endorsing both of my books.

Among the many things I love about Jim is that he is the sort of Christian academic one sees too seldom. That is, his diligence in scholarship does not come at the expense of a clear and urgent love for God and His truth. There never should have been a disconnect between the two; indeed, none is evident in Jim's writing or preaching and teaching.

Professor Hamilton recently had a golden opportunity to teach the Word in a spiritually dark country that is closed to the free open proclamation of the Gospel. To protect current workers there, as well as future opportunities, we're being a bit fuzzy on which of the many closed countries it was. (Please refrain from guessing out-loud; there are many such countries still. I will delete speculation, without further explanation). God does know, and your lack of specifics won't prevent your praying for Jim and those whom he taught.

I understand you just had an unusual teaching mission. Where was it, and what were you doing?

Security concerns don't allow me to name exactly where I was, but the country is in the top 20 worst places for the persecution of Christians. For the most part Christians there don't seem to be in physical danger, though they could be subject to fines, imprisonment, harassment, or worse. There are stories of Christians from that country disappearing. As the country's economic standing in the world improves, they seem to be growing more tolerant of Christians (in part, no doubt, to avoid international protests against human rights violations). They seem, however, to consider it a loss of face for westerners to enter their country to teach their people.

It was my privilege to go to that land of darkness, where the government tries to set limits on how the light can shine. Opening the Bible is like pulling back curtains on a sunny day in Arizona. The light floods every corner of the room: the power of truth is bigger than man's wicked attempts to suppress it.

I was taken to an apartment building on the outskirts of a major city, and since tourists don't typically go there I was basically under house-arrest. If I had gone out of the building, I would have been conspicuous, so I stayed indoors, mostly avoided windows, and the word of God was not bound.

By God's grace, through our adventures in God's word and the Christian fellowship, I basically didn't notice that I wasn't leaving the building.

Have you ever done this before?

Not in a closed country. I taught in formerly communist Romania for a week in 2007, but since Romania is no longer communist, there was no need for secrecy.

What led to this opportunity?

The man on the ground there is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He graduated right before I joined the faculty, and I was recommended to him. A colleague of mine had already been there, and others were lined up to go when I was invited. So though we didn't know one another personally, there were various connections between us.

Who were you teaching?

There were 23 students from all over the country.

It was humbling to stand before these 21 men and 2 women who have suffered for the gospel and were risking a lot more than I ever have. They are in an ongoing training program. Their knowledge of the school there comes largely by word of mouth, and it seems that the theology embraced by the likes of Spurgeon is what draws them to this particular school.

What did you teach?

I taught Genesis–Esther. The first part of the true story of the world. What a blessing to have the Bible!

How was the reception?

It is so encouraging to teach people who have experienced Psalm 19:9-10, "the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb."

God's people love God's word. The Bible is a subtle book, though, and it's not always easy to see how later biblical authors have interpreted what earlier biblical authors wrote. It is God's rich mercy to get to serve God's people by helping them see the intrinsic connections, the inner logic of the most important book in the world.

The word of God is living and active. It is able to make us wise unto salvation. It is all profitable. For two weeks, we the thirsty, we who had no money, delighted ourselves on the richest of fare (Isa 55). "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to thy name give glory, because of thy lovingkindness, because of thy truth" (Ps 115:1, NASB).

How did the scene you encountered there compare to your expectations?

Having heard so much about the way eastern people supposedly think differently than westerners, I was surprised to find them thinking about the Bible in basically the same ways we do. I got the same kinds of questions I get when I teach at SBTS. In fact, there were moments when I would say something, and while it was being translated, I would think to myself: If I had just said that in a classroom back home, someone would ask me this question. Then a hand would shoot up and that very question would be asked. Brilliant!

At some points, no offense to my Stateside students, better questions were asked by these brothers and sisters.

Did you ever feel yourself to be in any danger?

No, I think the worst they would have done to me was probably put me in a hotel for a day or two while they processed my expulsion from the country. So the concern wasn't so much physical danger as a desire to avoid jeopardizing the ongoing work there. It would be a shame for people who have been a long time in that country, building wide networks, learning the language, and sowing for decades, to be expelled.

What did you take away from this opportunity? What would you say to our readers?

I am so encouraged by the way our brothers and sisters in a different culture on the other side of the world are living on the same sound doctrine that we embrace. The Lord Jesus is keeping his word. He promised to build his church, and he's doing it. He purchased people from every tribe. He sends his servants to make disciples of all nations, equipping them with the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation, and the gates of hell will not stand against him.

This is better than Aslan being on the move. It's better than Aragorn's return to Gondor.

The true King of the world is making things ready for the day when he will return to reign, when his bride will be clothed in white because of his righteousness. On that day he will finally deliver his people and defeat his enemies.

The romance of orthodoxy is the most thrilling thing in the world, and we have this chance to fight the good fight for the King who will come, this chance to take up our crosses and follow him, this chance to proclaim the truth when it seems preposterous, to sacrifice for the world's greatest cause, to live out the gospel in our marriages, to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and to love one another as we have been loved.

"Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore . . ." (Eph 6:13–14). And there's no contradiction between the call to stand and the call to "Go . . . and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19).

Thanks for giving us a taste of your ministry. God bless your future efforts!

Dan Phillips's signature


allen said...

Thanks for the introduction to this man. I read "God's Glory In Salvation Through Judgment" at your recommend. Talk about a cohesive look at God's book!
Thanks for this further info.

DJP said...

You bet, Allen! Isn't that just a wonderful book? Ticks me off that there isn't more noise about it among the sites that ought to do such things... but we do what we can, eh?

Larry said...

I met Jim at a conference in Cedar Rapids, IA and found a humble and God loving man. Have read his books and yours also Dan and would recommend both of your men to all who would care to grow as a Christian. Thanks Dan - God's continuing blessing on you men.

Jonathan Hunt said...

What an encouraging and God-glorifying post to raise the spirits in the post-Christmas haze!

jmb said...

If you're a nobody, I guess that makes me a sub-nobody.

lee n. field said...


No need to speculate about exactly where he was. There's plenty of candidates.

Anonymous said...
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Mizz Harpy said...

Praise God for faithful teachers in closed countries. These poor sheep sorely need Biblically sound teachers, it seems like fresh heresies and cults are constantly springing up and people don't know the difference between sound doctrine and heresy. Kind've like the U.S. anymore.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me Prof. Jim thank' you ...You are a true inspiration. (I honestly believe that if the church here in the U.s.a were more mission minded "reach the lost with the Gospel" and less "lets be like the world" so they will like us and our church. It would be better for Eternity even Here! God bless John MacArthur also, a true voice of Gods Word. in a country of circus entertainment with a minority of faithful churches that understand what church is.I hope to learn more of Jim.thanks again for you leadership.

Anonymous said...

Dan, great job as always. Nice questions as well.

Jim, I had wondered about your whereabouts because I also frequent your blog. How amazing that you were were given this opportunity.

May the Lord continue to richly bless you both.

Raine said...

This is a great interview. I am enthralled to see Jim Hamilton on this blog. I too enjoy when academics and Gospel-centeredness meet in the same package. The more I ask serious questions about the Bible, the greater I encounter God through His written revelation, and that's why Jim was able to put out a book like God's Glory in Salvation through Judgement.

Also, gotta love how Hamilton's experience with the way the Easterners relate to the Bible completely contradicts post-modernism. :)

DJP said...

Second paragraph = golden observation.

As to the first, isn't that just sad? I mean, isn't it sad that it's remarkable? Shouldn't it be the other way around, that the man who devotes himself to the close study of the text of Scripture, and yet is tepid about its edgy truths, is the bizarre exception rather than the rule?

My mind snaps to a similar observation about bloggers, but there I'll leave off.

Tyrone said...

As I was reading this verse came to mind;Mat_16:18 "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." And then further down it was quoted by Jim Hamilton, praise God for His on-going work.