Last night I attended the installation ceremony for Todd Billings, who will now occupy the Gordon H. Girod Research Chair of Reformed Theology at Western Seminary. The evening was bittersweet, as Todd has been diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that has no known cure, but as he reminded us last night, the Heidelberg Catechism begins “that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Todd began his inaugural lecture by having the audience recite Question 1 of the Heidelberg, and then he compared this to the creed of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which essentially says that the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. God won’t interfere in your life unless you ask him to, and only then to resolve some problem and restore your happiness.
Todd argued that the Heidelberg begins with displacement—we are not our own—whereas the creed of MTD focuses entirely upon us and our felt needs. Todd noted that MTD comes out in theology today when leaders assert that their felt problems are the ones that Jesus had in mind, and then they leap over 2,000 years of tradition to discover “the real meaning of Jesus” that the church had buried all this time. Todd gave examples of Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus on the left, the Patriot’s Bible on the right (what does Jesus tell us about the founding of America?), and N.T. Wright in the middle, whose 2013 Calvin January series lecture was entitled, “How we’ve all misunderstood the gospels.”
Rather than start with our own questions and then try to find some correlation in Scripture—which usually amounts to finding that Jesus was some misunderstood revolutionary whose dreams didn’t catch on until us—Todd said we must drill deeply into our own theological traditions until we hit the water table of the catholicity of the church. We must find those universal truths that Scripture and tradition have always taught us, for not only are they what is most important but also they are what will unite us together.
Jamie Smith gave a response that echoed these themes, which made it a very good night. Join me in prayer that God will heal Todd, for the sake of his wife and two toddlers but also for the sake of his church. God bless Todd Billings, and may he continue to bless the church through his ministry.